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On the Ethics and Science of Sexual Desire

If you’re attracted to thin people, maybe you wouldn’t be if you lived someplace where fat means wealth and power. If blackened teeth don’t turn you on, you would probably feel differently if you were raised in premodern Japan.

People’s sexual preferences are shaped by society, and that means they’re generally fraught with the same biases. This is great for the love lives of white, cis-gendered, non-disabled people and bad for mostly everyone else. Worse, the people disadvantaged by the biases of sexual preferences have no recourse – there’s no affirmative action attraction. And though the law probably shouldn’t meddle with the heart-shaped hole in the regulatory system, that doesn’t make it less painful.

“I don’t give a flying fuck about the [Americans with Disabilities Act],” declared a participant quoted in a study of the sex lives of men with cerebral palsy, “because that’s not gonna get me laid!”

Bias in the bedroom is no less unjust than in housing or employment, argues Sonu Bedi, an expert in political theory at Dartmouth College, in a paper in 2015. Intimacy is central to happiness in most people’s lives, he writes. It’s wrong for people to have to settle for second-rate partners because bias deprives them of intimate opportunities, and it’s worse because those tend to be the same people society treats unjustly in many other ways. Lust and love aren’t magical – they’re grounded in the same inequalities as everything else.

Romance, as explained in Elizabeth Emens’ 2009 paper on “intimate discrimination,” is founded on two unromantic factors: “accidents” and “calculations.” Accidents are the people we happen to meet. That might sound neutral, but serendipities are skewed by things like racially segregated schools and housing.  Next comes calculations, which are how we size up the people we do meet, and which is as ugly as it sounds. People with disabilities, for example, are much more likely to be poor, which tends to make them less attractive in the “rationalist” eye of the “dating market,” Emens writes.

These are urgent problems for many other reasons besides making sure that someone who’s a wheelchair user has an equitable shot at finding love. Enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act, going after housing discrimination, and redistributing wealth – among many other things – would help fix them.

But apart from the macro reforms, can an individual overcome their own biases? There’s a lot of pleasure on the line – everybody’s missing out because the butterflies in people’s stomachs have such narrow, dubious taste.

I started researching this story out of frustration with my own sexuality, because I’ve never wanted to have sex with men. I identify as a straight man, but piles of historical evidence (ancient Greece, etc.) suggests that’s partly just because of societal norms. The modern conception of heterosexuality is only about a century old, and there are societies today, as in Samoa, where it doesn’t neatly apply.

Googling ways to expand one’s sexuality soon leads to the study on how black women on OkCupid receive radically fewer messages, and then it becomes clear that there’s justice as well as pleasure at stake here. If it’s possible to muck around with the problematic instincts of one’s libido, people arguably have an ethical obligation to try.

The love lives of many people in prison suggest that it might be possible. And “love lives” is the right term here. Research has blown up the popular idea that straight men’s supposedly uncontrollable libidos, once deprived of women, turn prisons into hellscapes of rape and other kinds of violence. Instead, scholars now put stock in the “social constructionist” model – that a prison is a different kind of society than the free world that surrounds it, with different sexualities to match. There is a lot of predation, to be sure, but a prisoner who rapes another prisoner is still understood to be a rapist – and that’s a bad thing to be, explained a formerly incarcerated man in a 2016 study, Constructions and Negotiations of Sexuality in Canadian Federal Men’s Prisons. (Studies on the subject have been disproportionately on men.) There is courtship and consent; there are relationships.

Incarceration, then, can be cause for a kind of midlife sexual reconstruction. It’s not clear how that experience might affect a person after their release from its strictures and deprivations and the social norms they help forge – there are relatively few studies on how imprisonment can affect a person’s sexuality. But there are still small-sample-sized glimmers. A study published in 2013, on men in maximum-security prison in the southern US, found that men who were intimate with other men while in prison were hugely more likely to change their sexual orientation, mostly from “straight” to “bisexual.”

There are also alternatives to a life of crime – Jane Ward, a gender and sexuality studies professor at the University of California, Riverside, had a couple of everyday suggestions for expanding the range of one’s desires. The baseline, she said, is to question a lack of attraction for someone instead of just accepting it. After all, a person’s notion of what’s attractive has likely been narrowed by years of “crass childhood socialization” to which they never consented, Ward explained. People may be able to overcome that by consuming culture that doesn’t reinforce stereotypes.

“I don’t trust the presence or absence of tingling to be something that has not been manufactured for me,” said Ward.

People will (continue to) suffer if people fail to overcome – or at least begin to acknowledge – all the bias behind the tingling, explained Riley J. Dennis, who makes YouTube videos about social justice issues. The stakes are high – being single literally kills people.

“When large swathes of society decide that certain groups universally are not attractive, it pushes those groups further to the fringes of society and does a lot to other them. It can crush their self-esteem and make them feel like life is hopeless,” Dennis wrote. “I don’t think that’s a future we want for anybody.”

F.T. Green  is a reporter in Toronto.

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F.T. Green is a reporter in Toronto.

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